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Iowa Ideas

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How thinking across industries can help solve complex problems

Businesses, educators can work together to discover solutions

Jul 20, 2017 at 1:34 pm
    An attendee writes a note at the Cedar Rapids Iowa Ideas Symposium at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

    Some problems are an easy fix – possibly involving a new system or bringing in an expert. But some societal problems don’t have an easy solution. These problems, often connected and intertwined with other issues, are sometimes known as “wicked problems.”

    Take, for example, what industry leaders in Iowa are calling the skills gap. Or how technology is reshaping the work we do. Or how Iowa’s school districts merging affects the population, businesses and access to resources in small towns.

    In lining up speakers for the Iowa Ideas September conference, our team has heard varying challenges happening in one of Iowa’s sectors that are similar or linked to a challenge in another sector. Through Iowa Ideas, we are intentionally taking a cross-disciplinary approach so that solutions can be aimed at larger issues that span across industries.

    We took a look at a few of Iowa’s initiatives and leaders that are thinking across industries. Here’s what we found.

    Businesses can advance by looking at other industries

    Businesses could save a lot of time and money if they looked at what solutions other industries have adopted that might apply to them, said David Hensley, executive director of the Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

    The first step, Hensley said, is getting creative people around a table to talk about how they used innovation and what challenges and requirements were faced to identify common problems. He recommended they think at a strategic level and ask “how do we address this problem?” and look at the application across industries.

    “You can benefit a lot from learning the strengths and weaknesses of different activities or potential solutions,” Hensley said.

    We get so caught up in our industries, many times putting out our own fires, that we don’t see what others are doing and miss out on potential solutions to our problems, he said.

    To foster this kind of thinking within your organization, Hensley encourages teaching people what innovation is by providing framing for it, expecting creativity and solutions from staff, providing reward for innovation and recognizing that failure is sometimes OK.

    Hensley said technological innovations continuing to accelerate at an extraordinary pace – including the internet of things and using social media as a business marketing tool – are some of the biggest advances he’s seen in the business sector. More and more leaders have to spend time on this, he said.

    Other organizations, like the Employee Resource Group Consortium, bring business leaders together to tackle issues across different sectors – such as attracting and retaining diverse employees or having businesses involved in the communities they operate in.

    Beyond the ways reaching consumers and company culture are changing, businesses are also tackling another issue: the skills gap.

    Education, workforce development and industry work to tackle skills gap together

    To close in on the skills gap, Iowa organizations from both the state and private sector across various industries have been working together. Part of this effort includes sector partnerships, which is defined as “a workforce collaborative that organizes key stakeholders and targeted industry partners” into a working group focusing on industry needs, according to a report from the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Workforce Development and Iowa Central Community College.

    “Most sector partnerships in Iowa (62.1%) were established in 2015 or later. Over half (59.2%) have 11 or more active and engaged industry partners, and just under three-fourths have 1 to 9 active and engaged support partners,” the report reads.

    The Iowa Department of Education worked with educators, workforce development groups and industry leaders alike for a year to develop the definition of college and career readiness – which includes academic skills, learning skills, transition skills and leadership skills – to guide the education Iowa’s students receive, Director Ryan Wise said.

    “One thing I’d emphasize is listening and keeping an open mind...We can learn across all those sectors.”

    - Ryan Wise

    Director, Iowa Department of Education

    In seeking feedback for the definition, they found it was important to get beyond academic skills and include things like being able to transition from school to a career or post-secondary education, Wise said.

    The department has been undergoing a redesign of career and technical training, after an act addressing recommendations from the Secondary Career and Technical Education (CTE) Task Force that was signed into law in May 2016. The redesign, Wise said, involved working with school districts, community colleges and business leaders to align the varying priorities and goals of the groups.

    The Department of Education is also part of a collaborative initiative called the Future Ready Iowa Alliance, which is an initiative to “build Iowa’s talent pipeline” by addressing some of the barriers Iowans might face in obtaining the skills needed to go to college or start a career.

    “The Future Ready Iowa initiative sets the goal of 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce ages 25 to 64 having education or training beyond high school by 2025,” according to the Future Ready Iowa Metrics that Matter report.

    Currently, 58 percent of that group has attained education or training beyond high school, according to the report.

    The group is focusing efforts on looking at high demand jobs and skills needed to be successful in a variety of industries – and making sure those skills can reach all Iowans. For example, data in the report shows a disparity in education among non-white Iowans. Wise mentioned that getting those who have been out of school for a while or had a bad experience with education back into training or education is another challenge they are trying to tackle.

    As people begin to take a cross-industry approach to addressing an issue, Wise advocates for taking the steps to learn from other sectors.

    “One thing I’d emphasize is listening and keeping an open mind,” Wise said. “We can learn across all those sectors.”

    5 questions to spur cross-industry thinking

    1. How is the issue I am facing or most passionate about related to other issues in the community or state?

    2. Are there other groups outside of my wheelhouse working on a similar issue?

    3. What is the root cause of the issue I am facing?

    4. What other leaders or organizations might want to team up to tackle this issue at a higher level than what myself or my organization can do?

    5. What can I take away from looking at solutions other sectors have already developed and implemented?

    Have more examples of thinking across industries? Let us know about it by emailing iowaideas@thegazette.com. Join us at the September conference to hear more about these. Check out our schedule to see sessions that interest you.

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